by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah
Wind changes the weather. A persistent mood or spirit changes your behavior, driving you like the wind in a new direction.
Bibilical Hebrew has one word for both wind and spirit: ruach.
ruach (רוּחַ) = wind; spirit, mood, emotional energy.
The Torah uses this word to describe both the creation of the world in the first Torah portion of Genesis/Bereishit, and its re-creation after the flood in this week’s Torah portion, Noach.
In a beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was a vacancy and a void and a darkness over the face of the deep, and the ruach of God was merachefet over the face of the waters. And God said: Light, be! And light was. (Genesis/Bereishit 1:1-2)
merachefet (מְרַחֶפֶת) = fluttering, hovering tremulously. (The only other place the Bible uses the verb rachaf in this form is in Deuteronomy/Devarim 32:11, where God is compared to an eagle fluttering over its young.)
Translators disagree over whether the word ruach at the beginning of the Bible should be translated as “wind” or “spirit”. I think the ruach of God, fluttering over the blank darkness and deep waters, is like the tender, hesitant spirit of someone about to become a parent.
The word ruach shows up again when Adam and Eve hear God’s voice in the garden “in the ruach of the day” (Genesis 3:8) I agree with modern scholars that this means the windy time of day, which tended to be late afternoon in Israel.
The next time the Torah uses the word ruach is when God is musing about the dual nature of human beings. God made the first human, in Genesis 2:7, out of both dirt and God’s own breath. In other words, humans are partly animals with physical desires, and partly mental beings with spiritual desires.
And God said: My ruach will not always be judge in the human; he is also flesh… (Genesis 6:3)
Here, ruach seems to mean God’s spirit, which shapes a human being’s character and prevailing mood. Sometimes a person’s character controls the appetites of the flesh, but not always.
God lets these double-sided humans make their own choices for 1,556 years in the Torah, from the time God returns Adam and Eve to the world until the time when their great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson Noah is 500 years old.
Then God saw that the badness of the human on earth was abundant—that the shape of every idea of his heart was only bad, all the time. And God had a change of heart about making the human on the earth, and he grieved in his heart. (Genesis 6:5-6)
God tells Noah to make an ark, because in another hundred years God is going to destroy the earth.
And hey, I Myself am bringing the deluge of water over the land to wipe out from under the heavens all flesh in which is the ruach of life. Everything that is on the land will expire. (Genesis 6:17)
The Torah repeats the phrase “the ruach of life” twice more in the story of Noah’s ark. In the third occurrence it becomes clear that ruach in this phrase means moving air, a small-scale wind:
All that had the breath of the ruach of life in its nostrils, from all that were on dry land, they died. (Genesis 7:22)
The flood wipes out all land animals, including humans, except those aboard Noah’s ark. But God is not really starting over. The animals and humans who emerge from the ark are the descendants of the ones God created in the beginning; they are built according to the same designs. Human beings have the same dual nature.
Nevertheless, when God restores the earth to working order, the language in the Torah recalls the language of the original creation.
And God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark, and God made a ruach pass over the earth, and the waters abated. The springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens were stopped up…(Genesis 8:1-2)
Once again God begins with a ruach. But while the first ruach flutters like the tender spirit of a mother bird, this ruach sweeps across the flooded world like an eagle soaring—or a wind that brings a change of weather.
In the first creation story, God acts by speaking things into being. In the re-creation story, God merely changes the weather, and the earth gradually dries out over the course of a year. When God speaks, it is only to tell Noah to come out of the ark with his menagerie.
After the story of Noah, the word ruach continues to mean “wind” when the Bible talks about God. When it talks about humans, the word ruach means “spirit” or prevailing mood.
A third phenomenon is the ruach Elohim, a “spirit of God” that takes over or rests inside humans. The ruach Elohim is a sublime wisdom in Joseph the dream-interpreter and Betzaleil the master artist, and a supernatural strength in Samson. It is an infectious battle drive in war leaders, and a divine compulsion in mad King Saul as well as the many prophets God uses as mouthpieces.
Thus even the ruach Elohim is manifested only in human beings.
In the beginning of the Torah, God creates everything. After the flood, the world and its humans continue on their own, and God intervenes only by blowing winds, by making plagues and occasional miracles, and by changing the spirits of a few select humans.
Today, I encounter two types of “spiritual” people. One type often sees omens and miracles, attributing every coincidence to the hand of God rather than to the laws of probability or nature. For this type, if a wind knocks down a tree that just misses them, God is literally in the wind and moves the tree.
The other type perceives God only through changes in their own spirits. For this type (my type), if a wind knocks down a tree that just misses me, God is in the shaken liberation of joy after the flash of fear. The divine is in me and moves my spirit.
The world has always been full of silent people who are moved by a divine spirit, but never do anything famous enough to be written down in a book. After all, according to the Torah we are all made partly of God’s breath, God’s wind, God’s ruach.